As a playwright, Paula Vogel loves nothing more than giving propriety an exquisitely sharpened poke in the eye. So it makes sense then that she would be a fan of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, a turn-of-the-century Yiddish drama that featured a lesbian romance so shocking to New York audiences in 1923 that the entire cast was put on trial for obscenity.
The first play in Vogel’s long and distinguished career to appear on Broadway, the 2017 drama Indecent is both an exaltation of Asch’s work and a sober reckoning with the forces that fought to destroy it. Cramming half a century of history into a dizzying 100 minutes, Indecent uses songs (mostly in Yiddish) and metatheatrical flourishes to push it towards the finish line.
Noah LaPook plays Asch, who writes God of Vengeance in 1903 Warsaw to show Jewish people as complex and flawed, capable of same-sex romance and of desecrating the Torah. The play is denounced by Asch’s literary mentor (David Darlow) as providing dangerous ammunition for anti-Semitism. But a small-town tailor named Lemml (Benjamin Magnuson), who is present for the play’s first reading, goes on to become its stage manager and most ardent fan, as well as the closest thing Indecent has to a protagonist.
The cast of seven—which also includes Cindy Gold, Catherine LeFrere, Andrew White and Kiah Stern (who plays Jenna on American Vandal)—divides its time among more than 40 different characters. There are also two musicians: Matt Deitchman on accordion and Elleon Dobias on violin. The performances are framed by designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s spare proscenium-within-a-proscenium set, a muted canvas that increases the sense of theatrical dislocation, at least some of which is intentional, in Gary Griffin’s staging.
It can be hard to keep up. The play moves quickly, with decades of successful European tours dispatched in a single very funny montage. The bulk of the narrative concerns God of Vengeance’s ill-fated run in New York. Changes imposed on Asch’s play by its producers, intending to make it more acceptable for its English debut, disappoint the cast (and Lemml) while satisfying neither the authorities nor the Jewish community. But the play’s censorship, both commercial and legal, don’t kill it: Vogel imagines a poignant afterlife for it in the Warsaw Ghetto. The nervous moralists might have been wrong about God of Vengeance, but they were right about what was coming.
Still, Vogel refuses to give in to despair. The play’s final moments are a beautifully played love scene between two young women that touches on the sublime. The problem wasn’t that God of Vengeance was indecent; it’s that the rest of the world was indisputably so.
Victory Gardens Theatre. By Paula Vogel. Directed by Gary Griffin. With David Darlow, Cindy Gold, Noah LaPook, Catherine LaFrere, Benjamin Magnuson, Kiah Stern, Andrew White. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.